In a move sadly consistent with the country’s abysmal freedom of speech record, an Egyptian court has sentenced 13 journalists to life imprisonment and another to death. According to Middle East Eye, the journalists are accused of being involved in a plot to target the state and cause chaos after Egyptian security forces cleared the Rabaa al-Adawiya Square protest in August 2013. The “Rabaa task force,” as local media refers to the group, includes many people involved in the protests. On April 11, the court upheld death sentences for 14 task force participants, while a further 37 (including the 13 journalists) received life terms.
Dual Egyptian-American citizen Mohamed Soltan, 27, is one of those consigned to life in prison, according to Free Speech Radio News. Soltan was involved in the protests in Cairo in 2013, which were held to protest the ousting of then-President Mohammad Morsi by military coup. That summer, Egyptian authorities took Soltan into custody, and he has been in prison for more than a year. The White House and the U.S. State Department have both called for Soltan's release since his sentence was passed Saturday.
Vice News reports that Soltan flew to Egypt after his mother was diagnosed with cancer in Cairo. Young and idealistic, with coveted language skills, he began working as a translator for foreign journalists as the city was engulfed in pro-democracy protests. Within months, he had been shot by a sniper and then detained. Found guilty of supposedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood — Morsi's now-outlawed political party, termed a “terrorist organization” by the current regime — he faces many more years in prison.
Most of the journalists who were sentenced are accused of working for pro-Muslim Brotherhood outlets. Journalist Walid Abdel Raouf Shalaby of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political branch) was sentenced to death, according to the Middle East Monitor. The other 12 reporters included Youm 7 journalist Hany Salah Uddin, and Rassad network co-founders Samhy Mostafa, Abdallah Al-Fakhrany, and Ahmed Abdel Alim. The editor-in-chief of Ikhwan Wed, Khaled Mohamed, was also sentenced, as was a correspondent for Amgad satellite channel.
Soltan’s sister told Vice that her brother had never belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood and that the charges are trumped up. But even if he had been a member, the Brotherhood was a legitimate political party until well after Soltan’s August 2013 arrest. His case is not unusual — merely a small human tragedy in a widespread crackdown on political opposition and pro-Muslim Brotherhood factions. According to The Guardian, there are some 16,000 political prisoners languishing in Egyptian prisons — many of them without convictions.
"He never committed a crime,” Soltan's sister Hanaa Soltan, a social worker in Washington D.C., told Vice. She continued:
He was a citizen journalist, active on social media and helping journalists gather interviews and get information… At first we thought this is silly — the international community isn't going to let all these human rights abuses go on endlessly. But it never really stopped and it hasn't yet.
In December 2013, three Al Jazeera journalists were arrested on charges of helping terrorists and spreading false news. They were convicted in June 2014 after a flawed trial. Following international uproar, Australian Peter Greste was released early this year, and his two colleagues were allowed out on bail in February. It remains to be seen whether the White House’s call for Soltan’s “immediate release” will allow him to walk.
Despite petitions on behalf of Soltan and against Egypt’s arbitrary detentions in general, the U.S., some commentators say, has not acted adequately to draw a line on the matter. Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, told Vice that “the U.S. could have done more” for Soltan. He said:
Unfortunately the US is continuing military aid to Egypt even though we know the government is corrupt and it's only getting worse… I don't know why they keep supporting the regime.
Soltan’s father, Salah Soltan, is among the 14 who have been sentenced to death, alongside Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie. Last March, as Vice reports, Egypt handed down the biggest death sentence in its modern history when it condemned 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death. When Soltan maintained a hunger strike for months, his father — held in the same prison — was allowed to tend him as a nurse. Now, however, the young man’s human contact is strictly rationed. His sister says he spends much of his time in prayer.
Hanaa Soltan expressed optimism regarding her brother’s chances at freedom. “I'm cautiously optimistic only because I believe our government will do what it takes, but there's really no just system within Egypt,” she told Vice.
Middle East Eye reports that the head of Cairo’s Syndicate for Journalists Yehia Qalash has promised to establish a legal committee to study the cases of the sentenced journalists, in the hopes of securing their release. Although Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi recently claimed there were no limits on freedom of expression in the country, Egypt is ranked by the Committee to Protect Journalists as the sixth worst jailer of journalists worldwide.
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